In Dream Chaser Interviews

Have you ever said, “To hell with it!” and abandoned your dream? Jen Zeman did when she was rejected by her top-choice design school. Today, she talks with us about the impact of that decision and the steps she’s taking to reclaim the dream she turned her back on twenty years ago. Welcome, Jen!

Beyond the Gray: Tell us about yourself and your dream. 

Jen Zeman: My name is Jen Zeman (née Montalbano) and I currently reside in little ol’ Rising Sun, Maryland (located in the northeast corner of the state). I’m 39 years old and I work full-time for the U.S. Army and have been there for the past five years. It pays well but it’s boring and unfulfilling, and a far cry from what I really wanted to be growing up. My dream is to become a full-time author and artist…where I should have been twenty years ago.

My dream to have an artistic career goes back to elementary school. I was always a talented artist who, every now and again, would come up with a crazy short story or two (the most memorable being about a furry, motorcycle riding, make-believe “glurrble” for my fourth grade class). My head was always in the clouds. By high school, I wanted to become a fashion designer. When I wasn’t accepted into Parsons School of Design in New York (which happened to be the only school I applied to), I immediately decided to hell with them; to hell with art. And with that one decision, I entered the 9-5 workforce and have been there ever since.

BTG: Tell us about a time you found yourself in “the gray”. How did you move beyond it?

JZ: After receiving my bachelor’s degree in 2005 (in legal studies, of all things) and obtaining the job with the government in 2006, something started to stir within me. I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 14, my aunt, who was like a surrogate mother to me, to breast cancer in 1999, and my dad passed away from lung cancer the August after I graduated college. I was lost. I was miserable. I started to wonder how I got to this place in my life, far from where my dreams wanted me to be. I no longer had the desire to flow with the status quo and couldn’t fathom sitting in a cubicle doing God-awful boring work for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.

I started thinking about writing a memoir, and after some encouragement from a close friend, I did. It was gut wrenching at times, but I rediscovered my love of writing. After unsuccessfully pitching the memoir to agents, a few of the agents (and my editor) said I had a good young adult voice and should consider turning the memoir into fiction. At first I was reluctant, but one day I sat down to write a fictionalized version and never looked back.

BTG: Tell us about the fictionalized version of your memoir.

JZ: I took the storyline of the memoir and created a paranormal story I personally thought was kick-ass. Unfortunately, agents didn’t see it the same way. I didn’t get a single bite of interest, whereas with the memoir, agents were at least asking for partials and a few asked for the whole manuscript. I realized after a trip into Barnes & Noble, staring at the YA paranormal books (the rows, and rows, and rows of paranormal books), that my story wasn’t as original as I thought. Note to self: listen to the agents; they know what they’re talking about!

So, I’m now on my third version of the manuscript feeling more confident about it. I’m concentrating on the YA market, particularly contemporary fiction. I’m finished with paranormal! This third version of my story runs parallel to my memoir, but I loved my characters from the paranormal version so much, I brought them over to this story. The paranormal version was a whooping 86,000 words (which was most likely another turn-off for agents), so I’m going to try to keep this version at around 65,000 words.

I’m also starting to get back into drawing and painting and concentrating on calligraphy. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed art!

BTG: How does calligraphy fit into your dream?

JZ: The calligraphy is an extension of the art I want back in my life. I always loved to create my own alphabets when I was in high school, so I figured it would be cool to pick it back up. Plus, becoming a calligraphist would be another way to bring in money while also being creative.

BTG: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while chasing this dream and how did you overcome it?

JZ: The biggest challenge by far is time, or lack thereof. Having a full-time job outside the home only gives me a limited amount of hours to myself. I also have a house to manage, two dogs who love attention, chores, errands, and a husband who likes to spend time together. So the challenge has been carving out hours specifically for my writing and my art. It hasn’t been easy. I finally came up with allotting four hours to myself on Saturday and Sunday (and the same for my other days off) and this has been working really well.

BTG: What is your biggest fear and how do you overcome it?

JZ: My biggest fear is losing sight of my dream because of all the craziness around me. I overcome this by meditating for 15 minutes each morning and maintaining my running and weight training. Both give me tremendous focus and allow me the recalibrate my mind.

BTG: What inspires you?

JZ: I’m hugely inspired by artists of all genres who, despite the odds against them, made it through and are now living their dreams. I always keep in the back of mind: if they can do it, so can I.

BTG: If you could give one piece of advice to someone else who is struggling to follow a dream, what would it be?

JZ: Don’t give up, ever! Listen to yourself, not everyone else around you. Naysayers are only there to drag you down with them; rid yourself of them immediately!

Are you following a dream? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
E-mail me at: erika [dot] liodice [at sign] hotmail [dot] com

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Showing 5 comments
  • the writ and the wrote

    Great interview, Erika and Jen! I am following my dream of becoming a writer and can’t imagine giving it up. I do struggle to find a work/life/writing life balance, though.

  • Ashley Prince

    Jen, I am so glad that you decided to pursue your dream again. I have seen many people who stay miserable their whole lives because they let their first rejection get the best of them.
    Great interview!

  • Jen Montalbano Zeman

    Thank you ladies! The best thing is knowing I’m not alone! I’ve learned to take baby steps versus finishing my first draft and expecting to be the next J.K. Rowling within six months! lol!

  • frandi

    Jen, I agree with you, especially the bit about not listening to others’ negative comments re following your dream. People are well meaning but in the end, only you can make that decision about which dream to follow. I understand your passion to get your book published and continuing your artwork. I have also taken up sketching and painting which in a way has helped me to get into my second book, fiction this time. I also have a blog, facebook and Twitter account, which have both inspired my writing. I don’t know if you have a blog, but you could make it so special with your calligraphy etc. People will get to know you and this helps with book sales. There are so many people out there, like you and Erika, who have given me exciting inspiration! Go Jen!

  • Camilla Cabal

    I am always looking online for articles that can facilitate me. Thank you!

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